BEOWULF-HOLT_TEXT - Beowulf Beowulf is to England what...

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27BeowulfBeowulfis to England what Homer’sIliad(see page 67) andOdysseyare to ancientGreece: It is the first great work of the English national literature—the mythical andliterary record of a formative stage of English civilization. It is also an epic of the heroicsources of English culture. As such,Beowulfuses a host of traditionalmotifs,orrecurring elements, associated with heroic literature all over the world.The epic tells of Beowulf (his name may mean “bear”), a Geat from Sweden who crossesthe sea to Denmark in a quest to rescue King Hrothgar’s people from the demonicmonster Grendel. Like most early heroic literature,Beowulfis an oral epic. It was handeddown, with changes and embellishments, from one minstrel to another. The stories ofBeowulf,like those of all oral epics, are traditional, familiar to the audiences whocrowded around the harpist-bards in the communal halls at night. They are the stories ofdream and legend, archetypal tales of monsters and god-fashioned weapons, of descentsto the underworld and fights with dragons, of the hero’s quest and a communitythreatened by the powers of evil.The Sources ofBeowulfBy the standards of Homer, whose epics run to nearly 15,000 lines,Beowulfis short—approximately 3,200 lines. It was composed in Old English, probably in Northumbria, innortheastern England, sometime between 700 and 750. The world it depicts, however, ismuch older, that of the early sixth century. Much of the poem’s material is based onearly folk legends—some Celtic, some Scandinavian. Since the scenery described is thecoast of Northumbria, not Scandinavia, it has been assumed that the poet who wrote theversion that has come down to us was Northumbrian. Given the Christian elements in theepic, it is thought that this poet may have been a monk.The only manuscript ofBeowulfwe have dates from the year 1000 and is now in theBritish Museum in London. Burned and stained, it was discovered in the eighteenthcentury: Somehow it had survived Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries twohundred years earlier.The Translations ofBeowulfPart One of the text you are about to read is from BurtonRaffel’s popular 1963 translation of the epic. Part Two is from the Irish poet SeamusHeaney’s award-winning, bestselling translation of the work, published in 2000.People, Monsters, and PlacesBeowulf:a Geat, son of Edgetho (Ecgtheow) and nephew of Higlac (Hygelac), king ofthe Geats.Grendel:man-eating monster who lives at the bottom of a foul mere, or mountain lake.His name might be related to the Old Norsegrindill,meaning “storm,” orgrenja,“bellow.”Herot:golden guest hall built by King Hrothgar, the Danish ruler. It was decorated withthe antlers of stags; the name means “hart [stag] hall.” Scholars think Herot might havebeen built near Lejre on the coast of Zealand, in Denmark.

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